If you heard the first few notes, you’d recognize them immediately as the theme song for the TV series, Star Trek. After a few bars, you’d hear the voice of William Shatner, otherwise known as Captain Kirk, intone these words: “Space: The final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its 5-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
These are thrilling words, full of determination and courage and vision. But underlying them is the dark presence of the unknown—intriguing but also vaguely threatening. Who knows what might happen out there in the final frontier?
You might say that, in his letter to Philemon, Paul is carrying out a similar mission. His strange new world isn’t the world of outer space, but the new world of life lived as a follower of Jesus—a world that would have been very strange indeed according to the social structures of the time. The new life and new civilizations he was seeking weren’t alien space creatures and their cultures, but new life for human beings in communities transformed by the love of Jesus. Paul, along with all the other early Christians, was gradually working out how this transformation would play out in everyday life, and living this life did require that they boldly go where only Jesus had gone before.
You may remember that we’re not sure who wrote some of the letters attributed to Paul, but the Letter to Philemon is almost universally accepted as Paul’s own work. This is unusual, because it’s written to a particular person instead of a church or group of churches. Paul wrote it from prison, either in Rome or Ephesus. Paul suffered several lengthy imprisonments in various places, but Rome and Ephesus are the most likely locations. He probably wasn’t in a jail cell as we think of them. Paul was a Roman citizen, so it’s more likely that he was under house arrest, with a Roman guard stationed there to keep an eye on him. he would have been allowed to have visitors and also someone to live with him as an attendant.
Paul begins the letter with greetings to the entire church community that meets in the house of Philemon, and possibly under Philemon’s leadership. But he quickly turns to Philemon himself. One of Philemon’s slaves—a man named Onesimus—had arrived on Paul’s doorstep as a runaway. We don’t know how long Onesimus had been with Paul when Paul penned his letter, but it was long enough for two things to happen. One was that Onesimus had lived up to his name, which means “useful.” Onesimus had become useful to Paul, perhaps even as his aide in the house where Paul was staying. And, more importantly, Onesimus had become a Christian.
According to the law of the land, Onesimus was Philemon’s property and should have been returned. But now there is another law at work—the law of love that governs the Body of Christ. The relationship between Onesimus and Philemon has changed. Legally they are still master and slave, but in Christ they are both servants. Technically Onesimus is Philemon’s property, but in Christ he is Philemon’s brother. Culturally Onesimus and Philemon occupy very different places on the social ladder, but in Christ they are equally valued members of one body. All the established rules which once governed their life together have been superseded by the law of Christ’s transforming love. And, the transformation of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus produces ripple effects far beyond the relationship between the two men themselves.
Before Paul gets to matter of Onesimus, Paul shares with Philemon just how much Paul values Philemon’s faith and the fruit it has produced—his love and encouragement for all the saints and his sharing of his faith with others. I suppose if you’re a cynic, you could say that Paul was buttering up Philemon before he makes his request. But I’m not a cynic. I think that Paul is sincerely thankful for the faith and fellowship of this man—his friend and brother in the faith. And, it’s on the basis of this shared faith that Paul can make his request.
Paul’s approach to Philemon offers some insight into how being a disciple of Jesus transforms relationships. Paul had every reason to simply demand that Philemon do what Paul asked. Respect for Paul’s age alone would have been sufficient reason. So would Paul’s status as prisoner on behalf of the Lord they both love. Gratitude would also be reason enough: after all, it was Paul who introduced Philemon to Christ and nurtured him in the faith. The bottom line was that Paul was an apostle who had planted the church in Philemon’s house, and Paul had the authority to tell Philemon to do his duty, however Paul defined it.
But, Jesus had called for a change in the relationships that had once been governed by status and the cultural rules of honor and shame. Maybe, as he thought about how to approach Philemon, Paul was thinking of Jesus’ words to the disciples, when they were ticked off at James and John, who were angling for positions of power. We read in Mark that Jesus said to them, “You know that the ones that the Gentiles recognize as their rulers lord it over them. But it is not so among you; whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be slave of all.”
So, although Paul has every right to command compliance, he declines to exercise that right. Instead, he makes his appeal on the basis of love—the love between brothers, in the interest of the love Paul has for Onesimus, who has become like a son to Paul. He makes his appeal to Philemon as an equal in their relationship, which is bound up with their shared faith in Christ.
On the basis of this transformed relationship, Paul explains the situation. It almost sounds like Paul is figuring it out, step by step, as he goes. After all, this is part of that “new civilization” Paul was seeking out. What do you do with a runaway slave and, now, fellow Christian on your doorstep? What should Philemon do?
Paul lays out some possibilities. Onesimus had become both beloved and useful to Paul. Although Paul would have liked to keep Onesimus with him, Paul decides to send him back to Philemon. Rather than lord it over Philemon, Paul gives up his authority and allows Philemon to make his own decisions.
But, Paul does have hopes about what that decision will be. He also has faith in Philemon’s willingness to do what is right and good. Paul’s hope is that Philemon will welcome Onesimus back into Philemon’s household—welcomed back not as a returned piece of property but as a brother in Christ.
Paul is confident that Philemon will do what Paul asks and more. But, obeying the law of love may be a heavy lift for Philemon. After all, social expectations die hard, and for Philemon to disregard all the usual norms would have significant ripple effects, as we’ll see in a moment. So, Paul adds his thoughts about why this situation has arisen in the first place.
It may be, Paul suggests, that this is all a God thing. Paul says, “Perhaps this is the reason Onesimus was separated from you for a time, so that you might have him back forever, and in a new way—as a brother, a beloved brother, not a slave.” Just maybe, God’s hand was in this, transforming this relationship and, through it, many others as well.
Paul takes care of some more practical concerns as well. Although Onesimus is sometimes wrongly portrayed as a thief, there may have been some actual financial costs associated with his absence. Paul promises to make up those costs, whatever they may be. Paul wants nothing to stand in the way of Philemon’s decision.
We don’t know what action Philemon took in response to Paul’s letter. Some scholars suggest that he must have done what Paul hoped for; otherwise, Philemon wouldn’t have kept the letter we now have. Also, in the letter to the Colossians, we read that Paul is sending Onesimus along with Tychicus to visit the church at Colossae.
So, let’s assume that Philemon did, indeed, welcome Onesimus back into his household, not as a slave but as a brother in Christ—that Philemon’s faith in Christ and in the fellowship of believers has transformed their relationship. Let’s assume that, for the love of Jesus, Philemon was able to look past all the societal norms that once had power over him and, in so doing, is moving into a new frontier and creating a new kind of community around him.
Because of the transformation of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus, every other relationship they have will be transformed. Becoming a brother in Christ, and possibly a freed slave, would have changed the status Onesimus had in the household. Paul mentions a woman named Apphia in his greeting, and scholars think she may have been Philemon’s wife. She would have been responsible for running her household, which means she would have been responsible for the family’s slaves. With Onesimus no longer a slave, the relationship between him and Apphia would also be transformed. Apphia, like her husband, would have lost a run-away slave and gained a brother in Christ.
The church that met in Philemon’s household would have been transformed. The belief that in Christ there is neither Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free would have moved from a nice idea in theory to a boots-on-the-ground, pedal-to-the-metal reality. Now they need to pay more than lip service to this idea. This was an opportunity to live out what Paul taught and what Jesus had modeled—that all are one in Christ, regardless of race or nationality, social or economic status, gender or religious background. Their treatment of Onesimus will be the living, breathing evidence of how seriously they take their faith in Jesus and the community he created by the gift of his Spirit.
Finally, the transformation of the all these relationships had the potential to transform the world around them. Welcoming back a runaway slave and loving him as a brother was totally at odds with the values of their culture. Including him in their community as an equal was a witness to the transforming power of Christ. It was a witness to what God’s kingdom looks like, when God’s people actually live out the law of love. They had the power to reveal what it looks like when a community of believers, made new creatures and living new lives in Christ, create a new kind of community.
Perhaps Paul had this in mind when he wrote to Philemon, “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.” Maybe he was thinking of all the ways in which one transformed relationship could spread, from two men, to a household, to a church, to the world.
What Paul was suggesting to Philemon was uncharted territory. Jesus taught us what kind of lives we are to live, but he left the details of how to do that up to believers in every time and place, as we confront our particular challenges. Like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, Philemon and Onesimus and the other early Christians were feeling their way through an uncharted frontier. We are called to do the same.
We have our own relationships that need to be transformed by the agape love that Jesus urged his followers to show, not just to each other, but especially to those who have been deemed outsiders by society. Sadly, slavery is still a reality in our country and in the world. As Christians we have a responsibility towards those who have been trafficked into economic and sexual slavery. But we also need transformed relationships with those who continue to deal with the legacy of past enslavement based on race. We need to move past simply paying lip service to equality to really working to understand how that history still shapes the present.
And, there are other people we may not even think that we’re in relationship with—people we don’t know (or think we don’t know). People like immigrants who flee their homes to find a better future, even if they, like Onesimus, leave without permission and arrive unexpectedly on our national doorstep. People whose water systems collapse or crops fail or whose homes are destroyed by flooding or fire or drought, made worse by climate change. People with differing physical and mental abilities who desire full inclusion in all that our world has to offer. People seeking acceptance as they truly are, in all aspects of their identities. People returning from prison. People struggling with addiction. Our attitudes and words and actions towards people whose lives are different from ours is evidence of whether or not we’re allowing Christ to transform our relationships with people who may seem to us as foreign as the space aliens encountered by Captain Kirk and Scotty and Spock.
In the big picture, these relationships are important because every policy our government enacts, every vote we cast, and every person we elect is a means by which we can put Christ’s transformative power to work in our interconnected world. But it all starts in our own hearts, when we hear the word of Jesus, calling us to love our neighbors as ourselves. It starts with the conversation over the backyard fence, at the coffee shop, in the bleachers at a ball game. It starts when we begin to perceive that the full inclusion of others in the family of faith and in world around us blesses us as much as it does them.
As the grace-filled love of Jesus changes our hearts and our one-on-one relationships, that transformation radiates out—into our families, into our church, and into our community. As Paul prayed would happen with Philemon, when we perceive all the good we may do for Christ, the sharing of our faith becomes effective, whether through our words or our actions.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is 25 verses long. The reading called for by the lectionary stops at verse 21, with Paul’s confidence in Philemon’s decision. But I included the last four verse as well, because they have something important to say, especially in this time when our nation is so divided on so many fronts. Paul has just asked Philemon to do something that is likely way outside his comfort zone. He’s asked him to give up some long-held assumptions. He’s asked Philemon to act in a way that may disrupt his household and his church. He’s asked him to do something that may even make him the object of scorn.
And yet, without knowing whether Philemon will agree with him or not, Paul also asks him to prepare a guest room for him. Paul hopes that, through the prayers of the entire church in Philemon’s house, Paul will one day be able to visit—that he will be restored to them. It’s not conditional—his desire to see them doesn’t depend on what Philemon does in response to Paul’s letter. The relationship between them will remain intact. Paul sets a good example for us, as we navigate these times when we may not see eye to eye, even with those we care about most.
In the coming months and years, NASA will be exploring some uncharted territory. In October, NASA will launch a space station mission led by the first native American woman in space. On September 23, if all goes well, NASA will launch Artemis I. It will orbit the moon and then continue on for another 40,000 miles, farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown. Artemis 2 will carry a human crew around the moon, and then 4600 miles past it, farther than any other human beings have every travelled in space. Artemis 3 will land a crew on the moon, and that crew will include the first woman and the first person of color to walk on its surface. NASA is, in many ways, going where no man or woman has ever gone before, not just in distance but by including people who have been excluded in the past. They are not just seeking new civilizations but helping to transform our own, right here on planet Earth.
In his letter to Philemon, Paul is also exploring uncharted territory—the uncharted territory of how Christ’s presence in our lives transforms us and our relationships. Jesus provided a map of sorts, but he left out a lot of details. Paul and the other early Christians were explorers who worked to fill in the spaces that were marked “terra incognita.” We are invited to make that mission our own in our day. We are invited to explore what may seem like strange new worlds. We are called to seek out the new life Jesus offers and to create transformed communities. We are challenged to explore our own uncharted territory and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to boldly go where Jesus has gone before. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young